Converts to atheism or theism
July 24, 2007 11:56 AM   Subscribe

Name some prominent converts to either atheism or theism.

I'm looking for books and names of fairly prominent thinkers and authors (ancient to modern) who, at some point in their lives, converted either (i) from atheism to theism, or (ii) from theism to atheism.
posted by keith0718 to Religion & Philosophy (45 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
CS Lewis comes to mind; Mere Christianity is the result of his transition from atheism to the Church of England.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:01 PM on July 24, 2007

You should probably define atheism. For example, christians were considered athiest by the romans because they didn't belive in *all* of the gods.
posted by __ at 12:04 PM on July 24, 2007

Evelyn Waugh converted to catholicism I think.
posted by jouke at 12:05 PM on July 24, 2007

Douglas Adams comes to mind. As I understand it, he was greatly influenced by the work of Richard Dawkins, but I'm not sure if he was ever very religious to begin with.

link (wikipedia)
posted by hsoj at 12:06 PM on July 24, 2007

Paul, famously.
posted by ChasFile at 12:07 PM on July 24, 2007

Lots of writers of the beginning of the 20th century were raised religiously and lost their faith. Joyce f.i.
posted by jouke at 12:08 PM on July 24, 2007

I'll add G.K. Chesterton along to Lewis. His autobiography might shed some light on his actual conversion. His stuff is a ball to read regardless. There's also St. Augustine, who details his conversion in The Confessions.
posted by jquinby at 12:12 PM on July 24, 2007

posted by mullingitover at 12:12 PM on July 24, 2007

Gerard Reve converted to catholicism from a communist upbringing.
A dutch writer; so not very relevant to the US. But his interpretation of catholicism was very strange.
posted by jouke at 12:17 PM on July 24, 2007

Constantine was a pagan and became a Christian. So that answer is moot. Augustine's conversion had more to do with leaving the "ways of sin" behind that an actually shift in the belief of a diety. Paul's was never an atheist, he believed the normal Jewish thought of his day. So folks read the question.
posted by __ at 12:18 PM on July 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

ChasFile, I don't know if Paul counts; he converted from Judaism to Christianity ... aren't both technically Theism, a believe in one God?
posted by Happydaz at 12:19 PM on July 24, 2007

what mullingitover said. Constantine's conversion may have had the biggest impact on organized religion in history.
posted by terrapin at 12:22 PM on July 24, 2007

Thomas Merton, who grew up nonreligious/indifferent/atheist, became a very devout Catholic.
posted by gubo at 12:24 PM on July 24, 2007

Pascal is notable in the breadth of his swing to theology.
posted by plinth at 12:25 PM on July 24, 2007

Charles Darwin lost his faith, if I remember correctly.
posted by occhiblu at 12:28 PM on July 24, 2007

I don't know how much of this is part of the latest addition to his routine but Ted Nugent used to be loudly atheist, I remember him going off on a interview when questioned about the suicide of his father as well as on numerous other occasions. He's now a Christian.
posted by substrate at 12:43 PM on July 24, 2007

Antony Flew is a noted philosopher who converted from atheism to theism late in life.
posted by Prospero at 12:44 PM on July 24, 2007

Sorry, I did not see "author" (which I guess he is) or "thinker" (which he definitely is not).
posted by substrate at 12:49 PM on July 24, 2007

from atheism to theism

Well, youre not going to find any ancient atheists. Atheism is very modern. You will find famous theistic conversions, especially tons of pagan to monotheism.

Atheism, as we tend to know it nowadays, has its roots in 20th century materialism and science.

Also you'll find lots of 17th century characters called atheists by church authorities but they were actually theists who simply weren't religious enough. Or who got on the wrong side of the inquisition.

This page lists some names. Cant vouch for how accurate they are.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:52 PM on July 24, 2007

Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe of Roe v Wade) converted in 1995. She also claims to be an ex-lesbian.
posted by Red58 at 12:55 PM on July 24, 2007

A difficulty: where does "at some point in their lives" mean to start? Of prominent athiests, very few (like the general population) were raised that way. Are early conversions ok?
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:56 PM on July 24, 2007

Reading two books right now about religious/spiritual conversion: 'The Varieties of Religious Experience' and the big book of alcoholics anonymous. Also read this book back in college.
posted by Gregamell at 1:08 PM on July 24, 2007

Well, you're not going to find any ancient atheists. Atheism is very modern.

Actually, Plato spends some time discussing atheists in The Laws. (Generally, they're characterized as a danger to the ideal state.) So atheists were, at least, in existence back then, though certainly modern atheism has a different manifestation than in would have in Plato's time.
posted by Prospero at 1:11 PM on July 24, 2007

Charles Bradlaugh for (ii) - but isn't the question Googleable?

Also, can no-one think of any women?
posted by paduasoy at 1:27 PM on July 24, 2007

Lee Strobel, a former Chicago Tribune editor. He has written quote a few books about his journey from atheism to Christianity, including The Case for Faith.
Don't get the stupid teen-edition. It's missing all of the stuff worth reading.
posted by niles at 1:27 PM on July 24, 2007

quote quite
posted by niles at 1:28 PM on July 24, 2007

Well, you're not going to find any ancient atheists. Atheism is very modern.

Not true. Prominate atheists back in ancient Greece include Lucretius and Epicurus. A brief history of disbelief is an excellent BBC documentary that goes into detail about the roots of atheism.

Bertrand Russell is an example of someone who went back and forth a few times.
posted by kiltedtaco at 1:29 PM on July 24, 2007

Jane Fonda.
posted by brownpau at 1:39 PM on July 24, 2007

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rejected the financial assistance of his uncle when setting up his doctor's practice largely because it because it required his embracement of his family's Catholic faith.
He declared himself an atheist as a young man (or so I believe) but later on became greatly spiritual. Believing in fairies and Houdini's super powers for a start.
posted by NailsTheCat at 1:43 PM on July 24, 2007

No, that's incorrect. Lucretius denied the immortal soul but did not deny the existance of the gods. Epicureanism roughly means that the gods dont intefere in the works of man. Ancient "atheists" are best seen as 18th century deists.

Like I wrote earlier, ancient and pre 19th century atheists would not be called atheists today, they would be called lesser religious people. Not even agnostics. Many people in history have worn the label atheist onyl because they werent religious enough.

The idea of a purely materialsitic and deterministic universe without a creator is truly modern. It probably can be directly traced to the scientific revolution and the enlightenment.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:22 PM on July 24, 2007

Religion beat became a test of faith. A religious reporter on the L.A. Times gradually lost his faith covering religion.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:33 PM on July 24, 2007

Conan Doyle is very interesting. There was a tremendous amount of interest in spiritualism in upper class Britain just after the 1st World War. The war was truly awful for the Europeans. For decades before the war Europe was pretty much at peace. Between the 1870s and whenever the war started (1914?) there was generally peace in Western Europe, though Eastern Europe was more unsettled. We tend not to understand how they were swept from never knowing anything about war to a brutal, 20th century, total war, with high civilian casualty rate. Doyle lost his son in the war, as did many upper class British families. The interest in spiritualism was a poignant attempt to contact them, one that makes a bit of sense to me, though in a tragic way. I don't think you can count in as a true conversion, though.

Einstein is a famous atheist who is constantly adopted, erroneously, by the religious crowd. I don't know if he converted or if he never had much religious feeling at all.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 2:46 PM on July 24, 2007

I think its very unfair to call Albert Einstein an atheist. He was at best an agnostic or a deist. From the wikipedia
Einstein told Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind." (Brian 1996, p. 127) In 1950, in a letter to M. Berkowitz, Einstein stated that "My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment."[37]
I also dont think its fair to call him errornously accepted by the religious crowd. He seemingly was a religious person. See this section of the wikipedia. A modern day atheist like Dawkins would not be caught dead saying many of those things.

I think its important for the OP to realize that the facts surrounding "famous historical atheists" has been co-opted by both sides of the debate. A little research shows that the theist/atheist divide is very modern and pigeonholing historical characters into these roles may not be very fair.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:55 PM on July 24, 2007

Look to India: Charvaka started the atheist Lokayata school of Mauryan philosophy possibly as early as the 6th c. BC, which was active until at least the 14th c. AD, as documented in Madhava Acharya's Sarvadarshansamgraha. Jayarāśi Bhaṭṭa's Tattvopaplavasimha described a purely materialistic epistemology in the 9th c. AD.
posted by nicwolff at 3:28 PM on July 24, 2007

Like I wrote earlier, ancient and pre 19th century atheists would not be called atheists today, they would be called lesser religious people. Not even agnostics. Many people in history have worn the label atheist only because they werent religious enough.

This seems sometimes but not always true. To go back to my earlier example, in The Laws Plato describes atheists as claiming that the gods do not exist, that they are legal fictions and expedient creations of the ruling class, and that our lives are instead ruled by a combination of nature and chance. The word "atheist" seems to fit that description well enough. (I suppose you could argue that people who claim that our lives are ruled by a combination of nature and chance aren't "really" atheists, but that sounds a lot like a "no true Scotsman" argument of the kind that Antony Flew famously defined.)

It may be the case that you're assuming that people who claim that a god or gods do not exist necessarily assent to a set of additional beliefs associated with materialism, rationalism, and/or scientific empiricism, but even today that isn't necessarily true (though the Dawkinsish sort of atheist this describes is the kind that gets the most media attention these days).
posted by Prospero at 4:02 PM on July 24, 2007

Christopher Hitchens discusses his conversion and how it happened in his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
posted by Megafly at 4:37 PM on July 24, 2007

damn dirty ape writes "Epicureanism roughly means that the gods dont intefere in the works of man. "

Epicurus made the gods in his pantheon as insignificant as possible without denying their existence outright. His philosophy was materialist, and he demoted his gods to being both made of atoms and completely unconcerned with human affairs. One could argue that he only assented to the existence of gods in order to avoid being killed. Not an unwise move. Theists have, historically, murdered a lot of atheists.
posted by mullingitover at 5:21 PM on July 24, 2007

Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller is a very avowed atheist, well, so is Teller, but he's a lot quieter about it :)

posted by legotech at 7:23 PM on July 24, 2007

Nietzche grew up Christian and originally went to college to study theology. After a semester he declared himself an atheist.
posted by blacklite at 9:31 PM on July 24, 2007

List of notable former atheists.
List of atheists. (Presumably most didn't start that way.)
List of notable converts to Islam: From non-religious.

The list of atheists is very well cited.
posted by blacklite at 9:39 PM on July 24, 2007

This week: The LA Times' religion reporter. "Religion beat became a test of faith"
posted by cmiller at 4:19 AM on July 25, 2007

From today's NY Times, here's an obituary of a rabbi who founded a variant of Judaism that doesn't require belief in god.
posted by yarrow at 6:43 PM on July 25, 2007

St. Paul (Saul of Tarsus)
posted by Flood at 7:52 PM on July 25, 2007

Here's an article in today's NY Times about Peter O'Toole playing Pope Paul III in The Tudors that reads in part:
Six decades after his altar-boy childhood and subsequent loss of faith, Mr. O’Toole said he looked elsewhere for life guidance. “I suggest that an education and reading and facts aren’t bad things on which to ponder a few notions,” he said. But he acknowledged a “very strong and very real” spiritual side to his nature.

“No one can take Jesus away from me,” he said, having just expressed an affection for the Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are the meek,” etc.). “There’s no doubt there was a historical figure of tremendous importance, with enormous notions. Such as peace.”
posted by nicwolff at 9:08 AM on July 26, 2007

Madalyn Murray O'Hair, at one time sort of the face of atheism in the US, was born into a religious family. I don't know when or under what circumstances she became an atheist.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:18 AM on July 26, 2007

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